Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson
Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson
(© Evgenia Eliseeva)

You don't have to be a history buff or political junkie to appreciate All the Way, Robert Shenkkan's captivating portrait of a watershed year in the career of President Lyndon Baines Johnson – whom Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) portrays, thrillingly, as a master manipulator. You don't even have to be an LBJ admirer — as few of us remained, after his mishandling of Vietnam. Whatever your predispositions, after viewing this masterful production at Cambridge's American Repertory Theater, you'll come away more familiar, and more respectful, of the massive social changes that Johnson helped to bring about during his brief tenure: one year as interim president after Kennedy's assassination (the period examined in the play), followed by a full four-year term for which he had to seek election.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch commissioned and helmed this long (3-plus hours) but tirelessly intriguing production, with a different cast. It's hard to imagine anyone but Cranston as the lead: The role calls for equal parts charisma and stamina, and Cranston exhibits both in spades.

Johnson grew up poor in a small Texas town and, as a result, retained a lifelong empathy for the disenfranchised — even as personal ambition propelled him ever upward. Once he got his hands on the reins of government, he determined to push through an agenda of sweeping sociopolitical reform — in particular, a beefed-up Civil Rights Act, plus the provisions of the "Great Society" that he envisioned: improved education, health care, housing, crime prevention, conservation…In ramrodding these proposals, particularly measures to safeguard voting rights (recently struck down), he risked alienating the Southern-bloc Democrats who'd facilitated his ascent.

Wheedling, placating, bullying, threatening, outright blackmail — there is no end to the means Johnson employed to accomplish his goals, and famous as he was for the "the old Texas twist," he got as good as he gave.

Director Bill Rauch has assembled a pantheon of journeymen actors to portray Johnson's allies and adversaries: Most shoulder multiple roles. The solid 17-member cast — it feels like a multitude — includes Reed Birney, Arnie Burton, and Michael McKean, the latter rendering an unctuously creepy J. Edgar Hoover. The scenes, all quick-segue, take place within a Senate-like gallery, often with noninvolved parties looking on as silent tribunal. Woven through the narrative are intra-movement struggles testing the mettle of Martin Luther King (an impressively grounded Brandon J. Dirden), who, though prey to ordinary human flaws, never wavered in his commitment to nonviolence.

Ultimately, history will have to judge LBJ, but all the pluses and minuses are laid out movingly here, and the score card is especially timely given that the successors of the backwards forces he battled are mustered as menacingly as ever.